In the UK, it is believed that 100 000 people took part in The Shabbat Project, with London the epicentre. Dubbed “ShabbatUK”, it was billed as “the largest mass participation event ever organised for the Jewish community”.
The initiative was endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron, who remarked how it “brings together tens of thousands across our country to celebrate the unity and sense of community that has been a hallmark of Jewish life for generations… and we can all benefit from taking a moment to appreciate the value of family, friends and community life.”
Numerous preparatory events were held in the build-up. Among them, Woodside Park Synagogue hosted a “Ready Steady Cook” event, with chef Philip Small providing the community with ideas to spice up their Friday night cooking; Side-by-Side school in Stamford Hill held a special “Mummy and Daddy Kabbalat Shabbat” primer; the Whitefield community attracted more than 300 people to 10 venues for a series of discussions on the subject, "Shabbat – a 3 000-year-old institution: is it still relevant today?"; and the Pinner Synagogue ran a challah-making demo for women in the community as well as a special educational programme entitled: “Keeping Shabbat 1-2-3” demonstrating some of the key laws of Shabbat observance.
Schools across London also took part, holding mini-Challah Bakes and Shabbat-themed arts and crafts, as well as special educational activities and learning modules.
Jeremy Richards, head of Kodesh studies at Beit Shvidler Primary School in Edgware, explained that, in the week leading up to the main event, classes were be focusing on Shabbat.
"We are designating the Thursday afternoon as 'Shabbat Afternoon', which will be filled with activities focusing on what the children have learnt about the laws of Shabbat during the week," he said.
The UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has also been playing his part in drumming up student involvement, encouraging head boys and girls to get their peers involved.
Bertie Green, head boy of Immanuel College in Bushey, attended Rabbi Mirvis's reception for student leaders last week. He said: "After meeting the Chief Rabbi, I was inspired to do my bit to get as many students involved and aware of ShabbatUK as possible.
ShabbatUK officially launched on the Thursday before the big Shabbat, as 5 000 people flooded London’s Brent Cross shopping centre, setting a Guinness World Record for the “largest breadmaking gathering” (broken at the Johannesburg Challah Bake an hour or so later).
Ingredients stockpiled for the mega-event included 9 000 eggs, 13 tons of flour, hundreds of litres of water and thousands of yeast cubes. Addressing the bakers from a stage overlooking the preparation area, Mirvis praised organisers and participants for an "amazing spectacle”.
"We're off to an incredible start and we have no doubt that this year will be even better than last year," he said. "Strengthen your Yiddishkeit, connect to your roots."
Amid the excited chatter, flying flour and merry musical accompaniment, Hertsmere Jewish Primary teacher Michelle Pomerance, rolling dough alongside her sister and mother, reflected on the "amazing achievement" of bringing thousands of people together. “It's a great start to what I hope will be a great weekend for everybody," she said.
But it wasn’t only women getting stuck in. Peter Albert from Edgware attended with his family of eight, explaining: "I couldn't come last year, but the others had such a great time that I wanted to experience it myself. So I made a special effort and took the day off work. I can't get over how many people are here. This is the biggest Jewish event I've ever been to. It's great, because it's a shared endeavour and it brings everyone together."
On and around the Shabbat, over 100 000 people attended special synagogue services and took part in 900 events in more than 50 communities.
In London, a staggering 2 000 pupils from schools across the capital experienced a unity Kabbalat Shabbat event.
A special Friday night dinner held in a central London hotel organised by the Union of Jewish Students and University Jewish Chaplaincy drew hundreds of students.
Lynda Harris of Edgware was among the countless Londoners who opened their homes to people they’d never thought of inviting before.
“I have lived in a road of 11 houses in Edgware for the past 42 years,” says Harris. “During that time, we have celebrated two street parties in honour of the Queen: her Silver Jubilee and her Diamond Jubilee. My neighbour and I thought this Shabbat would be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the ‘Shabbat Queen’. We invited all of our Jewish neighbours and had an overwhelming response.”
The Barnet Synagogue had 154 of its members who do not normally observe Shabbat keep it in its entirety, and 250 people either hosting or being hosted for Friday night dinners.
“The spirit in the shul that Shabbat was electrifying,” says Naomi Lerer, “further boosted by a baby naming, a Brit Milah, a bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah and a second barmitzvah, all on the same day!
Pinner shul, meanwhile – who distributed Shabbat Project “care packages” consisting of food, candles and grape juice, to elderly and ill community members before the onset of Shabbat – had more than 300 members at a Friday night dinner. Debra Levin describes the scene:
“The hall was packed to capacity as people ate, drank, sang, struck up new friendships and listened to the inspiring headline speakers Rabbi Shalom Hammer (senior lecturer for the Jewish
Identity Branch of the IDF) and Maureen Kendler (Teaching Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies and a UJIA Ashdown Fellow).”
Levin says that over the course of Shabbat, hundreds of people – many of whom rarely come to synagogue – “found a renewed affinity to their Judaism”, enjoying a “Children’s Torah Takeover” service, a women’s learning and discussion group, special youth services, Torah classes, a Q&A session, and a cholent and sushi Kiddush-lunch followed by “l’Chaims” at people’s homes.
Rabbi Danny Bergson called the event “an outstanding success”.
“With a debt of gratitude to our dedicated volunteers, the event was of the highest standard, adding new creative and educational elements to last year’s outstanding event. (This year), more people took up the challenge to observe Shabbat… (and) felt the magic and awe it can create.”
Chairman Brian Eisenberg offered a similarly glowing assessment. “The cumulative effect was a tangible sense of being one cohesive, warm, welcoming and inspiring community and the memories I have from it all will doubtless rank as a highlight of my tenure as chairman.”
A variety of non-Orthodox congregations, including a number of Reform shuls, also took part in the initiative. In Harrow, for example, more than 200 people from the Mosaic community, comprising Liberal, Reform and Masorti members, were enthusiastic participants.
Musical Havdallah ceremonies and Havdallah Concerts held in various communities brought Shabbat to a close. Perhaps the biggest of these was held at Finchley Synagogue, where well-known Israeli singer Yishai Lapidot, who had flown in for Shabbat, entertained more than 1 000 guests.
In the aftermath, the London Jewish Chronicle called the event a celebration of Shabbat so joyous and imaginative that it has already established itself as one of the highlights of the British Jewish calendar, while Mirvis (who spent Shabbat in Manchester) said the response had rendered him almost speechless.
"I can't think of words in the English language to describe it –‘extraordinary' would be an understatement,” said the UK’s Chief Rabbi.
“People surprised themselves as well as their families and friends. They revelled in extending hospitality to one another, neighbours and acquaintances. They flocked to the various events and programmes and were welcomed with smiling faces, music, delicious food and a wonderful celebration of togetherness. They experienced the exciting, magical and joyful opportunities that Shabbat provides. Young and old came forward and enthusiastically engaged with the full traditional Shabbat experience, many for the first time in their lives.
“Reports from communities, synagogues, schools and other organisations indicate that over 100 000 people engaged with Shabbat on a scale that has never been previously seen in the UK.
“This remarkable and enthusiastic buy-in was simply sensational. A positive wave of spiritual energy has swept through the entire community.”
This is an excerpt from The Shabbos Project 2015 International Report. To read more about the Shabbat activities of more than 50 other cities worldwide during last year's Shabbos Project, click here